Will the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan push Central Asia towards Russia?

Drawing by Pototsky Dan

Drawing by Pototsky Dan

Political scientist Andranik Migranyan talks about how the balance of power will shift in Central Asia following the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

A recent seminar in Washington delivered the latest report of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, entitled "The United States and Central Asia after 2014," outlining two opposing views as to the strategic objectives, prospects, and role of the United States in the region.

One view is that Central Asia is of intrinsic interest to the U.S. Even after the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, the region will continue to play a major part in American foreign policy.

The other point of view, supported by most analysts, myself included, is that the region is of peripheral importance to U.S. foreign policy.

Today, the U.S. faces innumerable internal challenges of a socio-economic nature, and no fewer external ones emanating from more important regions (from a U.S. perspective), such as North Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. Given the country's shrinking resources and reduced capacity to shape the world as it once did, it is clear that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will be accompanied by a sharp downturn in Washington's oversight of the region.

Nevertheless, it was noted that the U.S. will still try, despite its reduced capacity, to achieve two objectives in the region: first, to continue to consolidate the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian countries; second, to prevent a sharp increase in the influence of Russia and China.

Given China's growing might and economic expansion in the region, it is likely that in the foreseeable future the U.S. will not view Russia as the main threat to the sovereignty of the Central Asian countries. And in view of its waning ability to pursue an active policy in the region and the threat that China's regional rise poses to long-term U.S. interests, Washington will be more interested in forging ties with Russia to counterbalance and contain China.

It seems to me that Russia's concern regarding the U.S. footprint in the region is largely due to the fact that in the 1990s and early 2000s Russia lacked the resources and the consolidated state power to assert itself in its own backyard, fearing that the U.S. would not only strengthen its positions in the countries of Central Asia, but bring its influence to bear on the internal political processes inside Russia itself and keep the country in check as a servile junior partner. That was the case in the 1990s.

Today, Russia is sufficiently strong that it no longer need fear U.S. influence in the region, and can play the role of an independent and effective partner in U.S.-Russian-Chinese trilateral relations.

Given the shifting balance of forces in connection with China's growing presence and America's truncated resources, a scaled-down U.S. presence in the region following the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan could well be acceptable to Moscow so as to prevent China's influence from growing too strong and to stop the spread of Islamic extremism.

Since Russia has neither the will nor the resources to exert unilateral control over the region — at least in the near future, a policy that achieves a balance in Russia’s favor is highly desirable.

In this context, it would be amiss not to mention the potential changes that could occur within the Central Asian countries themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they desperately struggled to maintain and consolidate their independence and sovereignty, fearing, almost by default, a restoration of the Soviet Union. In that respect, Russia is still perceived as a potential threat.

However, given that the current threats to the stability and independence of the region primarily come from Islamic fundamentalism (the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, etc.) and Chinese supremacy, Central Asian leaders will be forced to seek a balance of power among the “triumvirate” so as to preserve their independence and sovereignty.

Ultimately, the strengthening of the Taliban and other radical Islamic groups in neighboring countries, and the weakening of both the desire and the capacity of the U.S. to be the deciding factor in the region, will likely nudge the leaders into seeking closer ties with Russia.

Russian influence could come to the fore sooner than expected: the forthcoming handover of power to new rulers in Central Asia (a process always marred by political instability) is likely to entail major external interference, without which the regional regimes could not cope.

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